Pursuing a progressive agenda in rural and small town Ohio

BY: Anita Waters| December 17, 2020
Pursuing a progressive agenda in rural and small town Ohio


On December 13, the Ohio District presented a Panel Discussion around the question, “How can a progressive agenda be pursued and achieved in rural and small town Ohio?” Our panelists were Sean Dunne, a member of the Portsmouth City Council, Nancy Welu, a housing rights advocate from Newark, and Jamie Brown, co-chair of The Instigators in Lancaster.

Sean Dunne began his activity in town by writing grant applications to begin to renovate the riverside stadium, once the home of a National Football League team, that had fallen into disrepair, as well as to establish little free libraries and public art projects. Grounded in a commitment to basic human rights, Dunne has fought for both structural changes that benefit those in the community that have been hardest hit by deindustrialization and the opioid epidemic, as well as symbolic victories, like changing the image of Portsmouth in the national conversation, culminating in Portsmouth winning an All-American City Award in 2020.

Nancy Welu drew on her decade of experience advocating for tenants’ rights and relief for the unsheltered, lobbying City Council for rental registration, and demonstrating against local slumlords. She stressed how the pandemic has exacerbated the problems of the homeless, including adding further obstacles to their participation in electoral politics. She talked about the general neglect of voters in the townships and rural areas, housed and unhoused, by both main political parties. Furthermore, the term “progressive” has acquired negative connotations because of the way it has been demonized in the media.

Jamie Brown’s organization, The Instigators, is newly formed this year, and has held a series of town halls and “Righteous Wednesday” demonstrations, leading to the Lancaster City Council approving an official declaration denouncing white supremacy and hate groups. He told the story of his uncle, who suffered undiagnosed brain damage when he was denied prompt medical care as a child, was then brutalized and radicalized in prison, and died at age 45 of an opioid overdose. In this one short life, the toll taken by the multitude of disadvantages suffered by the rural poor is all too clear.

Youth are “the most marginalized segment of the rural population.” 

One common theme that all three panelists took up was the importance of young people in rural and small town areas. Jamie Brown called youth “the most marginalized segment of the rural population.” They are also the most likely to have positive associations with the idea of “progressive” politics. Nancy Welu stressed the importance of education, including labor history and basic civics, to give youth the confidence and resources that they need to be active in their community institutions. Sean Dunne talked about one particular project that he has been involved in: building a state-of-the-art skate park. Most Portsmouth residents don’t have the money to participate in increasingly expensive youth travel sports, but skateboarding is a pastime that young people of all backgrounds can embrace easily. He sees the skatepark as a way that youth can “create meaningful memories while they’re in Portsmouth.” What Dunne calls “collective effervescence” is important in unifying the community. Getting the skatepark built required the cooperation of a very broad coalition of partners.

Another common theme was the decimation of industrial manufacturing in these regions, and the corresponding decline in the influence of organized labor in these rural areas. Lancaster is the home base of Anchor-Hocking Glass Company, a company whose demise is documented in Brian Alexander’s book Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). Jamie Brown, whose family worked at the plant for four generations, described how Anchor-Hocking was once organized by US Steelworkers, but after years of the corporation selling off elements to extract wealth, plus the negative effects of anti-union legislation, workers were often faced with the choice of losing their benefits or losing their jobs. In a sell-off three years ago, workers’ 401k accounts, accrued vacation days, and other benefits were obliterated, and workers were forced to take a pay cut. Today, Anchor-Hocking and other manufacturing industries in the area source labor strictly through temp agencies.

Labor should be the central issue going forward.

Sean Dunne mentioned that Portsmouth City Council was able to pass a minor pro-union effort in city contracts, but the union Dunne belongs to as a faculty member in the state university system could do nothing to fight against a recent 10% culling of public higher education. He said labor should be the central issue going forward, an area where new ideas need to be explored.

The role of rural and small town policing was raised. In Lancaster, where police officers tend to be drawn from the town’s own population and are plugged into local social networks, police did not engage in violence against Black Lives Matter protesters as they had in larger Ohio cities. Instead, the chief of police was a speaker at the first BLM protest there and seemed to be affirmative in understanding racial disparities and accepting of culpability for some of the problems that the community was experiencing. However, it was clear that not all experiences with the Lancaster Police Department were so positive. In addition, the Fairfield Sheriff’s Department has taken a more militant approach, and more regressive positions on racial disparities.

Welu reported that police harassment and violence toward homeless people in the Newark area has been particularly mean-spirited. While the homeless group she works with often donates tents and sleeping bags to the homeless, police sometimes raid areas, seizing and destroying tents and sleeping bags and running the unsheltered off land owned by the railroad, where they are “not bothering anybody, just staying warm.” Homeless people are frequently stopped by police and interrogated simply because they are outside. Fear of police interference often keeps people from calling for help in medical emergencies such as overdoses, putting lives at risk.

We had a lively discussion about the idea of “meeting people where they are.” While it does mean that people need to be reached in the townships and counties where they live and work, it doesn’t mean tolerating bigotry.

We agreed to continue to discuss issues germane to unity between workers who live in cities and those who live in rural areas and small towns. In future discussions, we will center questions of organized labor, fighting for racial justice, and reaching out to young people in particular.

The recording of the program will be made available to those who registered, and eventually will be edited and posted at cpusa.org.

Image: Thomas Dwyer (CC BY-NC 2.0).


Related Party Voices Articles

For democracy. For equality. For socialism. For a sustainable future and a world that puts people before profits. Join the Communist Party USA today.

Join Now

We are a political party of the working class, for the working class, with no corporate sponsors or billionaire backers. Join the generations of workers whose generosity and solidarity sustains the fight for justice.

Donate Now

CPUSA Mailbag

If you have any questions related to CPUSA, you can ask our experts
  • QHow does the CPUSA feel about the current American foreign...
  • AThanks for a great question, Conlan.  CPUSA stands for peace and international solidarity, and has a long history of involvement...
Read More
Ask a question
See all Answer